Monday, March 26, 2018

Failing Spectacularly - Becoming Charles Kingsley

In the history of great debates, the one between Charles Kingsley and John Henry Newman looms large over most. What began as a fairly flippant dismissal of Newman by Kingsley for his conversion to Catholicism quickly led to one of the great defenses of one's character ever witnessed in Western literature, culminating in Newman's book the Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

With what appeared to be little forethought, Kingsley accused Newman's capability of telling the truth or at least of truly understanding his own actions. Newman (who would eventually be made a Cardinal of the Church) had spent years agonizing over this conversion and well understood that leaving the established Church of England would be viewed by many not only as apostasy but treason. Such is the case when membership in an established national religion is a compulsory part of civic life.

Deep down, Newman was relieved for the opportunity to tell his side of the story, even though the attack on his character pained him so. His defense was so thorough, so masterful and so surgical that Kingsley went down in history as having been thoroughly humiliated by his errors.

And yet, what of Mr. Kingsley?

Kingsley's errors occasioned one of the great texts in the English language. In a way he was a fox walking into a bear trap, who would be pitied in his total dismantling if his intentions were not so malicious. The trap was designed for the moment of ensnarement and yet may have never been sprung at all had it been simply left alone. 

And yet, what of Mr. Kingsley? A man who is remembered for useful carelessness and error even though he was himself a brilliant man. He became an perpetual avatar for the modern spirit being ever at odds with Christian orthodoxy. There are still those who are cheering at this match that is relived anew anytime a copy of the Apologia is opened.

Then what of you and I?

How would we feel knowing that our work and ideas were only useful errors? Would it matter to us? Should it matter to us? Charles Kingsley was certainly sincere. He was passionate and he was a patriot. He cared for modern man and the spirit of the age.

But would we want to be Charles Kingsley? At some point he had to have known that he was in way over his head, deep in that haze of desperation that comes when one's first argument failed to persuade by bravado or wit. Newman reached beyond style into the substance of what Kingsley wrote of him, wrenched it, and laid its shallow essence bare.

Some months ago I jumped into an online argument with someone who saw that behind the stylistic gymnastics of what I wrote was a simple factual error, an error of history, that was more than a simple mistake. It revealed how little I knew of what I was talking about. I was Charles Kingsley.

Before that, endless conversations and arguments about music, about obscure metal bands or pastoral English folk music that were truly little more to me than trivia alive within snobby music magazines. I was Charles Kingsley.

Earliest on of all, sitting at a table in an Olive Garden with my father and his elderly physicist friend, arguing on the existence of God, surrounded by family and physicians. I'm 12, maybe 13. My father's friend is a scientist and he doesn't believe in God. I get heated. I get passionate. I don't know why. My sensibilities are offended and I can't explain what I'm feeling inside. I start arguing and I try to shush my father. The physicist is calm and composed and that, along with age and wisdom, serve only as markers of our total opposition. Eventually I am quieted. Internally I am disquieted, and ashamed, and humiliated. I am Charles Kingsley.

To be Charles Kingsley is an opportunity to be wrong and fail spectacularly. At that moment, you may stay or you may grow. To follow in his path is to forever be the contrasted and bested, proud of pride and little else. Of course, you can learn and move on.

Either way you will be useful, to others or to yourself.

Monday, July 10, 2017

When your Church is the object of lulz

The Vatican released guidelines on the use of gluten in communion hosts.

From an "insider" this wasn't new or surprising. These really aren't new guidelines and they've been how things are for the parishes I've worked for. There has to be the presence of some gluten in the hosts. I'll give my brief take on why in a second.

For me, the real interesting thing is to see what happens when this kind of news hits the wire. Somehow it's deemed worthy of public interest, right at the crossroads of growing instances of gluten allergies, the public perception of Catholic culture and the perceived tension between reason and belief. In other words, are the really arguing about what kind of bread you can use for an antiquated ritual that most of society actively avoids?

The above screenshot is a sampling of reactions from Facebook, where most people selected the "ha ha" response and clarified that reaction in the comments. It's a joke...unless of course you happen to believe it.

It's a window into what constitutes culturally acceptable forms of cultural and religious mockery.

It's an unwillingness to not understand a culture on its own terms, something we're asked to do everywhere else in the world.

It's inadmissible evidence when someone cries "global Christian persecution" in those places that have more to face than cruel but often inoccuous Internet snark as we do here. We'll likely be fine but the people who we try to advocate for will suffer for the last acceptable cultural prejudice in the West.

It's a problem because if we're trying to teach other to be respectful even in our disagreements, then it has to count for everyone.

As to why I think the guideline regarding gluten free hosts is fair, I think there are a host of considerations.

Here's one: the "Incarnational", the nexus point of Christian reflection. The Incarnation is the belief that in Christ, the holy and eternal deity took on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Eternity entered history. The sacramental life of the Church is entwined with what Jesus did at a particular time and place in history. Those actions were received by His apostles and perpetuated by them in their successors. There is a clear continuity of practice in our traditions and that helps us maintain our identity.

The use of bread in the Last Supper ties us to that historical moment and, in turn, ties into the Passover celebration of the people of Israel, which was the backdrop of the Last Supper. It ties the universal celebration of the Catholic Mass to our origins, a span of approximately 3,600 years.

Modern culture and modern art rely on traditional symbol systems and often subvert them. But while most traditions that survive may reinterpret signs, they rarely substitute them. The principal behind the bread isn't just bread. It's solidarity and and tradition.

What if someone feels excluded from the Mass by not receiving the host? Here, there are guides who can see the opportunity for growth. The point of the Communion Rite is intimacy with God. That's what the sacraments exist for. It's an expression of solidarity with God and with others. Here, there are people who can help widen our perspective. I think of Simone Weil, who refused baptism throughout her life as an expression of her own unworthiness and as a way to express solidarity with the marginalized so beloved by Jesus. Or St. Mark Ji Tianxiang who, though unable to receive the sacraments for reasons beyond his control, showed great love and reverence for Christ's Presence in the Eucharist precisely through his not being able to receive.

There are certainly more than these but it brings up a final point: we do not know how to talk meaningfully about religion in public discourse.

Secular culture cannot understand a spirituality that transcends our own immediate experiences. The cultural aspects and it's impact on presumed secular values are what tend to matter most.

Christians, in particular, struggle to speak as to be understood. We tend to have a tin ear as to how what we say and how we speak is received by the larger culture. When we are not understood we are too quick to shuffle that misunderstanding into a persecution narrative. Over time we communicate in our own cliches and fail to check our own presumptions. We figure that he battle is won by lingo or sharp rhetoric. We want "likes" from the likeminded rather than the understanding of someone unlike ourselves.

We also struggle to want to understand the culture instead of declaring it irredeemable and hopeless, something that's indispensable if we want to open up our doors to it and they to us.

Friday, April 14, 2017

A Clumsy Good Friday

So how are you supposed to "do" Good Friday properly?

I'm Catholic so I have a wealth of prescribed devotional practices ready to go: no meat today, one full meal, Stations of the cross, acts of sacrifice and penance...

...they're all good and they all "work" but lately this is what I've been doing.

I just think of how I handled the deaths of the people I love the most and I kind of go from there.

So so how does Jesus fit into that?

I believe that the historical figure of Jesus was the actual Son of God. I believe that He was the Almighty reaching into His creation and working with us directly. The stuff He taught is how I try to live my life. Some of it throws me into a paradox loop and I get confused. All of it strikes this chord that I honestly believe is the resonance point of being and existence. It just hits this frequency like that note that can shatter glass.

With that, I feel very close to Him (as do about 2 billion other Christians). I feel that in Him I know and am known by God. My "relationship" with Him isn't like my relationship to my family so conversations seem a little one sided until these moments where my own awareness and my known-ness is very powerful that it takes me out of regular life. Devotional practices might enhance it but there's a point where can distract me a little too. It's like all of those prayers and devotions serve to draw you into they mystery and aren't ends to themselves but can draw you back in when you get lazy or lost.

But Good Fridays are a bit different than remembering the death days of people I've loved. The latter is always weird and morbid and I honestly don't even like to do that anymore. With Good Friday I already know the ending. It's part of the basic statements of belief recited by Christians for centuries: "on the third day He rose again from the dead".

So on Good Friday I mourn something that I know will be okay. Maybe it seems weird but it's basically the plot of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in John's Gospel. Jesus knows Lazarus is dead, knows that He is going to bring him back to life, and yet goes to His tomb in sadness, agitation, and tears. Then He raises Lazarus from the dead.

But I'm not just entering a time of symbolic mourning. I'm also reflecting on the depth of a sacrifice made on my behalf. And like most kinds of important things that have been done for me, I want to find a way to say thanks or sorry or both. So I'm either left doing something prescribed or try to put it in my own words or express it my own kind of way (which, no matter how you slice it, will probably be a little hamhanded, much like a marriage proposal or asking someone to be in a band...scripted or not it's almost best to just go for it and not overthink it).

So, how do I "do" Good Friday?

I think of getting the bad news of a loved one's death. You can sit and think about it and just sort of exist until you have to make plans. Mourning for someone who is a close family member might mean funeral plans and taking your suit to the dry cleaners. But what if someone is taking care of that stuff? Do you go to work? Is it inappropriate to put a movie on? What if you're really bummed out and it helps to get your mind off of things?

Do you say special prescribed prayers for them? What if you don't feel up for it? Can you just make things up in your head?

And if you believe you still have that connection with that loves one after death? Do you talk to them all rosy and piously? Or do you keep the conversation going like before? Or are you just talking to yourself?

A note on how the Apostles dealt with Jesus from His crucifixion onward:

A lot of people who comment on such things point out the strangeness on the response of Jesus' disciples to Him after the Resurrection: "they worshipped but some of them doubted". I think that's a perfectly reasonable response to something so inexplicable: your friend died and was buried but is alive again now and He's God. They based their whole lives on the experience of Jesus rising from the dead so clearly they weren't conflicted on the reality of it. But it's a bit much to sit with and make sense of.


For me, Good Friday won't seem be utterly different than coping with any other profound tragedy as a parent:

-my kids will get up
-I'll feed them
-I'll try to explain how important the day is
-they'll want to watch tv
-they'll fight over what to watch
-I'll contemplate whether or not I should even let them watch anything at all because it's Good Friday
-I'll remember that they're still little and might compromise by having them watch the Miracle Maker or something
-I might have to switch to Thor if that goes badly
-I'll do some work
-I'll reflect on God's great love for me
-I'll make lunch

Hopefully I'm living in gratitude and with the awareness of all that God has done for me and my family, finding solace in knowing that His willingness to suffer is an expression of solidarity with my own suffering, and who transforms all death and suffering in reconciling the world to Himself. There's truth and peace and purpose just a few days from any cross and the Good Fridays of this life are there to remind us to hang on just a little while longer.

The 1989 Batman.

There is so much that the 1989 Batman gets right that in a glut of quarterly-released comic book-related movies it almost seems dated and quaint.

I guess I have a couple of nitpicks like the fact that the city scenes occupy the same city block throughout the movie: Monarch Theatre, City Hall, a storefront simply titled "Hotel", the Museum...all occupy the space of a high school track. Axis Chemicals isn't far away. Neither is the Cathedral.

Also, Batman gets ready to tell Vicki Vale that he's Batman because of a single date and a shared special something. It's like the plot of Sixteen Candles.

But that's really it. It gets so much right and it's so cool. How this movie stays so cool after almost 30 years can only be explained by one of two things: 1) it's enduring value in establishing rarely surpassed norms or 2) the almost shameful sheen I've let accumulate on anything that I connected to as a child that keeps edging out anything that could possibly take its place and viciously confirms my own hardened pre-critical aesthetic.

Or it might be a little bit of both. I don't know. but if I were to apply a little bit of criticism it'd be this:

-it strikes a real balance between Tim Burton's eccentricities, fan service and embodying the guts of practically ancient characters while still establishing itself as its own thing. That's a hard thing to accomplish but here it is almost 30 years later and it's a benchmark.

-Jack Nicholson can't help being Jack Nicholson in any movie he's in. The Shining and Chinatown are more Jack Nicholson in a costume that him hiding behind a character. But here it's a real meld. The Joker becomes Jack Nicholson.

-I didn't realize how much of a hill Michael Keaton had to climb in being a comedian being cast as a superhero (especially after the precedent set by Christopher Reeves) until much later in life but he pulled it off. He's strangely the most grounded character. Alfred, Comissioner Gordon, Harvey Dent, Eckhart, and all of the zoot-suited henchmen from the beginning of the movie are cigar-chomping over-actors out of a Howard Hawks movie. But man does he bring it down to earth, even when he's wearing the big rubber suit.

-The Joker brings a terrifying sadism to his crimes. There are moments when it becomes scary because it starts hopping into reality. Yesterday was the first time in 28 years that I noticed that his Smilex compound came from a shelved military nerve gas experiment. I used to think the photos he cut up were just out of enjoyment. But those photos were of something horrifically real being reappropriated for his own homicidal art project. The Joker is a mix of an inborn, independent, free-flowing evil and mankind's collective capacity for evil: weaponry, chemical manipulation, creating a market for passively-observed destructive art. Again, these themes emerge naturally in the way Jack Nicholson absorbs and amalgamates those themes.

- Any film (superhero or otherwise) that deals with big themes and big relationships will suffer from the compression of time that any two hour film has to accept in order to be marketable. In a movie like this, different factors compete to reconcile with believability. Big clown balloons and cigar-chomping want to play up the kitsch. A pilgrimage to a tragic past and dinner in the kitchen want to keep things relatable.

Netflix's Daredevil was a good example of how longform storytelling can make an honest attempt to make these kind of stories a little more relatable. Criticisms aside there, it's able to achieve more realistic human relationship development than 2008's The Dark Knight possibly could. That movie's great and all but watching the effect that Bruce Wayne's relationship to Rachel had on him in 2012's The Dark Knight Rises is simply unrealistic. A couple of hours would've afforded the opportunity to see that relationship as something more than a really sweet crush on a childhood friend that ended tragically.

-The 1989 Batman changed my life.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Slayer's Undisputed Attitude - Entering Middle Age with Angry Resolve

The first time I saw Slayer was on the Diabolus in Musica tour. It was at Roseland Ballroom in NYC and Fear Factory and Kilgore Smudge opened. I was 17 and it was cool because I was the first of all my friends to see Slayer play live.

The show was the most chaotic, dangerous thing I had ever been a part of in my life up to that point. I couldn't hear for a few days afterwards. Someone got seriously injured and Tom Araya stopped the show out of concern for their safety, probably before playing Dead Skin Mask or Killing Fields. Burton Bell from Fear Factory threw me the microphone to sing part of Scapegoat.

At some point Slayer played Gemini, which was the sole original song from an album of punk covers (Undisputed Attitude). My first exposure to the album was a 15 second Quicktime movie posted by MTV that I downloaded from America Online. That short clip came up the size of a postage stamp and probably took me an afternoon to download.

Kerry King is the worst and he was in rare form in his interviews for the album and in the linear notes, doing what a lot of people who are into extreme music do when confronted with someone else's musical career and hard work: criticizing whole oeuvres by line-item and swerving someone else's personal taste into anathemas. He tore apart the bands he was paying homage to.

But maybe it was Jeff Hanneman's homage. It's clear from the linear notes and interviews from the time that he was the dude who was really into punk and hardcore. Jeff Hanneman was the Cliff Burton to Kerry King's James Hetfield, the superior taste that transcended the morass of classic rock. He really was brilliant, excursions into fascist aestheticism and memorabilia aside. I also never liked the lyrics, which is fine because I almost always ignore a band's lyrics. It's usually for the best.

Gemini was great because it had the same mid-tempo style that they used on Divine Intervention (the song) and Seasons in the Abyss (the album). It has aged better than a lot of their stuff and, as far as maturity in a metal band goes, I still think it sounds more like a step up than a step down. Live it was everything I could hope for because I actually DID spend money on Undisputed Attitude and had to skip forward on an awful lot of songs for a 33 minute album. Gemini is at the end and is a complete about-face to the rest of the album. The name of the song and the song itself sound like the "Gemini Man" level of Mega Man where everything looks like translucent Jolly Ranchers, which is to say a sort-of frosty futurism.

The album sounds desperate in both senses of the word (grasping at straws and nothing left to lose). Some of it is just too much, like the cover of the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" (renamed "I'm Gonna Be Your God") and "Can't Stand You". But some of it sounds truly angry which is a feat considering that they were in their mid-30's and, in Tom Araya's case, married with a child on the way. It's strange to think that the album was recorded while his wife was entering the third trimester of her pregnancy. His daughter was born two weeks before the album was released and undoubtedly he could no longer be the same man who recorded angry music made by young men in their teens and early-twenties.

In a way, the album is a consummate resolution to the dilemma most men face when leaving their youth: what did it mean to be old and what does it mean now that I'm there? Will my relationships be padded with conversations about sales goals and kitchen renovations? Will there be dyed hair and bad plugs? What does responsibility look like and can value systems shift without losing your identity? What does it mean to be a person of integrity? What does it mean when the kids in the audience are closer to my children's age than I am to them?

Undisputed Attitude is usually remembered by most fans as one of Slayer's worst album...without any realization that the critics themselves might trip over the same threshold that they ridiculed the band for having just crossed.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

What is reality?

It's not every day that I read something that blows my mind, but today happens to be that day. A worthy read (and reread).

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Being Critical of Being Critical (at least with yourself)

"The capacity to doubt herself, to abandon - albeit in the face of strong resistance - her self-assurance and self-satisfaction, lies at the heart of Europe's development as a spiritual force. She made the effort to break out of the closed confines of ethnocentricity, and her ability to do so gave definition to the unique value of her culture. Ultimately we may say that Europe's cultural identity is reinforced by her refusal to accept any kind of closed, finite definition, and thus only affirm her identity in uncertainity and anxiety."

-Leszek Kolakowski

"Looking for the Barbarians: The Illusion of Cultural Universalism" (1986)

What does it mean to be self-critical? In the Catholic tradition, we have what's called an "examination of conscience": a means of reflecting on our lives to see where we've gone wrong or to try and reconcile hard decisions with our values. It presupposes a couple things: that there is a God, that we possess a human nature, that there are ways to offend God and our own human nature, and that this rupture betrays that nature. The result of this is guilt, bad consequences, and redefinition of our own nature. To offend conscience is to recreate ourselves instead of allowing a Creator to continue to sustain His creation and to develop you in an ongoing act of creating.

This all presupposes the ability to think and reflect. Hannah Arendt defined "imagination" as the process in which we are able to dialogue with ourselves. Under that is some concept of a higher good or criteria that our actions are subservient to. To make ourselves and our own actions that highest criteria of right thinking or right action, in a sense, obliterates the dialogue because, at some level, one side of the interior dialogue is suppressed and the other is allowed to dominate. That suppressed side of the dialogue is most likely the one that doubts and criticizes actions that are (or allowed to be seen as) ambiguous.

But that act of dialogue with oneself also presupposes a few things too: a sense of self, the concept of an "other" (even if that "other" is a projection within oneself), the superiority of one view of another, and a final, binding judgment. Anxiety may come from a suspension of judgment or even the rejection of that judgment but, at some level, it presumes the validity of the idea of judgment. Even when someone is considered too critical of themselves, there is a "self" that is being judged and the resulting anxiety testifies to both the presence of an interior dialogue and an imbalance that seeks equilibrium.

When that interior dialogue is happening - so long as it actually is a dialogue - the acceptance and use of judgment, discernment, and even "otherness" presupposes something higher than the point of views, an ultimate "criterion", however elusive.

To avoid presuming a predictable conclusion for too long, this is one way to see how that the idea of an "ultimate" criterion that aids in discernment and judgment is a helpful way of understanding a tacit acceptance of the idea of "truth" that we all seem to have. Some people feel that this idea of "truth" is a useful way that our minds manage the things we think about, a sort-of silent party that allows for the possibility of a final judgment but for many others its a witness to the way God organizes our conscience and to conceptualize the reality of transcendence, that which exists beyond ourselves and our judgment.

Kolakowski's point in the quote above sees that the heritage of self-criticism is itself a sign of civilization and (to run the risk of a kind of triumphalism) is also a sign of a higher sort of civilization. As such, it's also a higher sort of humanity, a sign that something is going right and a principal for growth.

Though it's natural to avoid guilt and coming up short in examining our lives and failures, it's also "supernatural" to embrace self-examination. The tension and the anxiety is a sign that, at some level, something is going right. Better to go through it than walk past it.